On a Monday morning last month, some of the students attending my daughter’s school, El Camino High in Oceanside, California, were told by Highway Patrol officers that several of their classmates had been killed in drunken-driving car crashes the previous weekend. Some of the students were left stunned. Others were hysterical until a teacher told them it had all been staged. This left some of the students angry, and some of their parents upset.
It’s understandable why the students would be angry. They’d been tricked. It’s also worth noting how much time they’ve had to process their anger. Had the deaths been real, they’d still be stunned. Anger can be a welcome stage in the grieving process, but for some, it never happens. For some who have lost a loved one to drunken driving, the hole in their life is still filled with tears.
In today's print, North County Times writer John Van Doorn said the only lesson learned by the program is distrust of authority figures. Van Doorn missed the point: students are angry because they have that luxury. It might also be their way of distancing themselves from the initial shock and grief they felt – another luxury, and one that is only afforded by way of programs like the one at El Camino High School.
Real life affords no such leeway.
Our brains don’t operate on secondary emotions like anger, sadness, or happiness. They operate on primary emotions like helplessness, hopelessness, or fulfillment. Secondary emotions mask our vulnerabilities and weaknesses (primary emotions) and help protect us while we gain strength, search for resolution, or seek a particular goal.
Some of those students will remember how they initially felt. Some of them will, consciously or unconsciously, make sure they never feel that sense of distress and loss again – at least not by way of drunken driving. When (rarely if) the time comes, some of them will not allow their friend to drive drunk, and they won’t get into the car with the person who has been drinking.
I have no idea why some of the El Camino High School parents are upset. Maybe they could tell my friend Teresa’s mother about that.
I’d rather people under the age of 21 did not read any further. It isn’t that I don’t think they’d understand the words; rather it is my experience that most young adults have not been age-appropriately exposed to adversity and have not been allowed to develop a natural sense of compassion and empathy. This is why simply telling a teenager not to drink and drive doesn’t work. Without some kind of influential memory, there’s nothing for the teenager to reference later when it’s time to make a decision. This story is my memory. It is likely to have little, if any, impact on a young adult. Do what you will, though. If I’m wrong — and you’re under 21 — let me know in the comments section.
I had known my friend Teresa since grade school. As teenagers, we attended different high schools. Her school was way cooler than mine, so I was ecstatic when she invited me to a party with her friends. I was good to go until my mother saddled me with babysitting my little sister not an hour before I was to leave. At the ripe old age of 39, my mother left behind the life of a stay-at-home mom and had embarked on a new career. I fought with her all the way out to her car, and in response to my angst, she called me a rather nasty name as she drove off without nary a concern for my social life. I was livid.
The next day, I was speechless.
Unlike the students at El Camino High, my feelings did not graduate from grief to anger. I still grieve that loss, 31 years later. Life is funny like that: some events will always feel like they just happened.
When news came to my sophomore homeroom that Teresa, aged 15, and her friends, Maria and Michelle, both 16, had been killed because of drunken driving, I didn’t believe it. I walked home from school in a daze. I didn’t cry because it wasn’t real – until I walked in the door to find my mother, who should have been at work, sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for me. She didn’t have to say anything. As soon as I saw her, I knew it was real. As soon as she saw the tears come down my face, she knew I’d already heard.
No one would tell me it was hoax – because it wasn’t.
It took more than a few hours to pull Teresa and her friends from the car because their bodies were in pieces throughout the wreckage. Their funerals were closed-casket. The pews of the churches were packed. Their families were inconsolable.
That was it. I lost my friend. She was no more, and I would never see her again, ever. To be angry about it, well I guess I could have been, but mostly I just still cry when I think about it for too long.
When I was 16, teenagers didn’t die. That was my reality. Other people died, sure — even other teenagers — but my friends and me, we just didn’t die. When the reality of alcohol and their car crossing into the path of an oncoming semi threw that “reality” out the window — along with their purses and internal organs — all was lost.
The news rocked every high school in the city, but the students of those other high schools went back to business. They weren’t dead, and it wasn’t their friend who had been killed. They were like I had been before: the teenagers who just didn’t die.
I only attended Teresa’s funeral. I didn’t know Maria or Michelle, but that wasn’t why I didn’t go to theirs. After Teresa’s funeral, I couldn’t bear to watch another mother bent over from pain. My own mother barely maintained composure as Teresa’s parents steadied each other to the front of the church. Seeing my own mother that stricken was bad enough. To then see Teresa’s mother, an otherwise unflinching woman, fall apart before my eyes – it was too much.
I had been so angry with my mother and she with me just a few nights before, but at the funeral she kept her arm around me – and I let her. Afterward, my mother would tell me why she wore full-mouth dentures, and had since she was 22-years-old. There were no seatbelt laws in 1960. My dad was driving when a drunk driver hit their car head on. Dad was thrown against the steering wheel and somehow avoided serious injury. From the front passenger seat, mom took a healthy bite out of the dashboard on her way to and then through the windshield.
Here it is, almost 50 years after my mother’s surgery to reconstruct her face and jaw, and adults are still arguing about whether or not to tell 2008’s new drivers just how bad it is when people drink and drive.
I’m reminded of actress and comedienne Marlee Matlin’s story. On the advice of professionals, her parents put her in a school for mentally challenged children. She attended for several years before it was discovered she was just deaf. She would later tell comedy club audiences, “They thought I was the slow one?”
There will always be those who never learn. Maybe that’s why some of the El Camino parents take issue with the program. Maybe they’ve never lost someone to drunken driving. Good for them. Bad, though, if they think it’ll never happen to them or their children and so don’t adequately educate and prepare them. Bad – if they think their children could not be brought down with grief after losing a friend. Bad – if they do or say anything to lead their children to believe their own drinking and driving doesn’t carry enormous risk to themselves and others.
The choices I’ve made since Teresa was killed can be directly attributed to how she died and how I felt about it. It’s like nails on a chalkboard when I hear anyone dismiss the awareness program, or its effects, as “unnecessary.” The real unnecessary part of all this is the drinking, the crashing, the parents left childless or having to explain the loss to their other children even as they grieve. Unnecessary is the heartbreak, the mutilation, and the children who survived but will never walk or speak again and who will rely on their stricken parents for the rest of their lives.
I’ve often wondered why programs like this don’t exploit the irony of the teenagers who want so much to be independent of their parents, only to be left in their parents’ care for the rest of their lives – because they survived the drunken-driving collision.
El Camino High’s program does not also carry with it mandatory visits to emergency rooms and morgues. That would be too much, wouldn’t it? The thing is, my friend Teresa died in 1977. There were no drunken-driving awareness programs at all. Even in the aftermath of her death, the idea of such a program was met with disgust, and it was strongly insinuated that it would insult the families of those who had died. Today, the complaint is that we’ve insulted the families and friends of those who were never in any real danger.
I wish I had been so insulted. Teresa and I would have had such a good time talking trash about our parents and teachers.
Instead, I got to watch my parents greet other parents and teachers, all of them shaking heads they could barely hold up.
I watched as a couple of male teachers sobbed quietly in their cars in the parking lot.
I watched kids my age who had said they hated their parents but then held onto them tightly and quietly.
Maybe that’s where the program goes wrong – or rather, still needs to go. Maybe we take these kids to the funerals where they can see the families falling down because grief has robbed them of their ability to stand. Maybe we let them see what it looks like when a gruff, mean, and otherwise emotionless gym teacher leans against the wall, his face hidden, his shoulders convulsing with the loss of the student he’d helped out of his shell, only now to see that child locked in a casket.
Fortunately, I was not the only teenager at Teresa’s funeral who vowed never to drink and drive. I would come to learn I was not the only one who, as an adult, would draw blood while pulling keys out of a drunken friend’s hand. I was not the only one who learned.
Unfortunately, all these years later, Teresa is still not the only one teaching.
John Van Doorn, North County Times, North County, California
Dan Daris, Principal, El Camino High School, Oceanside, California
Larry Perondi, Superintendent, Oceanside Unified School District, Oceanside, California